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Hugo Chavez, passionate but polarizing Venezuelan president, dead at 58

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who went from a young conspiratorial soldier who dreamed of revolution to the fiery anti-U.S. leader of one of the world’s great oil powers, died March 5 in Caracas of complications from an unspecified cancer in his pelvic area.

He was 58 and had been president since 1999, longer than any other democratically elected leader in the Americas. Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the death.

Mr. Chavez first revealed in a brief, dramatic television address in June 2011 that he had undergone two surgical procedures in Cuba. He would go under the knife two more times, greatly weakening the once robust leader. Mr. Chavez had been elected in October 2012 to a third six-year term. But he missed his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 10 while lying gravely ill in a Havana hospital after undergoing what his aides had called a complex operation a month before.

(PHOTOS: The charismatic and omnipresent life of Hugo Chavez)

The country was plunged into an institutional crisis, with Mr. Chavez’s foes accusing the government of violating the constitution. But Mr. Chavez’s lieutenants managed to buy time until their leader’s pre-dawn return to Venezuela on Feb. 18. He remained at a Caracas military hospital, with his Twitter account bursting out messages such as “Onward toward victory always!! We will live and we will triumph!!”

As an obscure 37-year-old lieutenant colonel, Mr. Chavez had led a failed coup in 1992 against President Carlos Andres Perez’s government. Six years later, on Dec. 6, 1998, Mr. Chavez was elected president in a landslide after pledging to replace a broken, corrupt political system and redistribute the country’s substantial oil-fueled wealth.

Mr. Chavez left Venezuela deeply polarized, his supporters lionizing him as a courageous rebel determined to take on the elites, and his foes painting him as a dangerous demagogue and strongman.

The former army paratrooper promised a revolution and reveled in what he considered a battle to end all vestiges of the power structure then in place in Venezuela, especially its close economic and political ties to the United States.

( TIMELINE: The life and rule of Hugo Chavez )

Quickly moving to overturn the old order, Mr. Chavez marginalized the traditional power brokers who had held influence in Venezuela, attacked establishment institutions and upended the country’s economy.

Combative in olive green uniform and red beret, Mr. Chavez called his opponents “degenerates” and “squealing pigs,” referred to the Catholic Church hierarchy as “devils in vestments” and labeled critics “counterrevolutionaries.”

“Oligarchs tremble, because now is when the revolution is going forward,” he warned in 2000, after the constitution had been redrawn and a new legislature dominated by his allies had taken over. “This is going to be delicious; we’re going to deliver a knockout punch to the counterrevolution.”

His guiding light was the 19th-century independence liberator Simon Bolivar, whose pronouncements, writings and philosophy found their way into nearly every speech Mr. Chavez gave.

The new president renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and he labeled his philosophy Bolivarian. Mr. Chavez sought the unification of South America, reviving Bolivar’s unmet dream. He also called for a rejection of the so-called Washington Consensus, a policy that includes a drop in tariffs, adherence to tight spending, privatizations of state industries and other economic orthodoxy.

A gifted, charismatic orator with a keen ability to connect with the poor masses, Mr. Chavez was able to marshal public backing for a series of referendums that created a new constitution and permitted him to bring every important institution — from the legislature to the state oil company — under his control.

On the world stage, Mr. Chavez set Venezuela on a collision course with Washington, blaming American foreign policy and U.S.-style capitalism for much of Latin America’s social ills.

( PHOTOS: Venezuelans react to death of Hugo Chavez )

For an international left that was yearning for a passionate and magnetic leader, Mr. Chavez was a blessing.

He criticized the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and, in a speech at the United Nations in 2006, said President George W. Bush was “the devil.” He called Tony Blair, then Britain’s prime minister, “an imperialist pawn who attempts to curry favor” with the Americans. He accused Israel of genocide, saying its treatment of the Palestinian people was akin to a “new Holocaust.”

Mr. Chavez sought out relationships with assorted rebel groups, rogues and pariah governments. He exchanged letters with Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a Venezuelan-born terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, who was held in a French prison. He asserted that Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya was a model of participatory democracy.

Closer to home, Mr. Chavez expressed affinity for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a potent guerrilla group fighting Colombia’s U.S.-friendly government. His closest aides built a close relationship with FARC commanders, according to Colombian officials, rebel documents seized in army raids and former rebels.

Ties to Iran and Cuba

Mr. Chavez particularly irked the United States by building a close alliance with Iran and Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, which found in Venezuela a deep-
pocketed benefactor to replace the one the communist island lost with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

After taking office, Mr. Chavez began providing 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Castro’s government at subsidized rates; in exchange, Castro shipped thousands of Cuban workers, from intelligence agents to doctors and sports trainers, to Venezuela.

Drawing from the largest oil deposits in the world, Mr. Chavez embarked on a foreign policy in which oil, provided cheap to prospective allies, was freely used to help build an alliance to counter U.S. influence. In a grandiose plan to unite Latin America, Mr. Chavez formed an alliance he called ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America.

He bought more than $2.5 billion in Argentine bonds, created a Bank of the South to counter Washington-based multilateral lenders and pledged to build a pipeline across the continent and construct housing, highways and oil refineries.

Venezuela’s opaque financing, though, made it difficult to ascertain exactly how many projects were completed. And by 2012, many of Mr. Chavez’s most ambitious projects — a pipeline linking Venezuela to Argentina, the Bank of the South, a refinery in Brazil — had been quietly mothballed, as Venezuela’s economy struggled.

Mr. Chavez enjoyed warm ties with most Latin American countries, but his ALBA bloc attracted as members only the anachronistic regime in Cuba and some of the poorest countries in the region, among them Nicaragua and Bolivia.

Some officials who worked with Venezuela said they were put off by Mr. Chavez’s revolutionary, anti-U.S., anti-capitalist rhetoric.

“His discourse was political, ideological, about the liberation of the Americas, of fighting the forces of imperialism,” said the former governor of Pernambuco state in Brazil’s northeast, Jarbas Vasconcelos, who had tried to obtain Venezuelan financing for an oil refinery. “He imagined commanding a revolution in all the Americas against the United States.”

The young Chavez

Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born July 28, 1954, in the sparsely populated plains state of Barinas, the second of six sons of a couple who were teachers. He grew up poor and dreamed of playing major league baseball (he had a gift for pitching).

Young Hugo had another passion: reading and listening to stories, his imagination fired by tales about the great battles and the prophetic words of the revolutionaries who had founded modern Venezuela.

He had an influential tutor, Jose Esteban Ruiz, a leftist historian who introduced Hugo and his own sons to everything from Machiavelli to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract.”

“Put Marxism in your head, I told them,” Ruiz later recounted.

At 17, Mr. Chavez joined the Venezuelan army, and he graduated from its military academy in 1975. As a young army officer, he began to gravitate toward left-leaning superiors who spoke of the need to replace Venezuela’s two-party system.

(PHOTOS: The charismatic and omnipresent life of Hugo Chavez)

Mr. Chavez was assigned to an anti-guerrilla unit in the eastern state of Anzoategui, where the last vestiges of a 1960s-era guerrilla movement remained. He would later say the assignment was morally confusing.

“Why am I here?” Mr. Chavez would recount to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian-born, Nobel Prize-winning writer, in a 1999 interview. “On one side are peasants, dressed in military fatigues, torturing peasants who are guerrillas. On the other side are peasant guerrillas killing peasants dressed as military men.”

Forming a secret movement with a handful of other army officers, Mr. Chavez began to prepare for the day he would overthrow the state. In 1989, when a popular revolt in Caracas sparked by an increase in fuel prices was violently put down, Mr. Chavez and his co-conspirators decided their time would soon come. Their 1992 uprising quickly unraveled, but Mr. Chavez became a folk hero when the government gave him a moment to speak before the television cameras.

“Comrades, unfortunately, for now, the objectives we set for ourselves have not been achieved,” said Mr. Chavez,
ramrod-straight and dashing in his beret. Two words, “for now,” or “por ahora,” remained ingrained for many Venezuelans.

Released from prison in 1994, Mr. Chavez moved into a small apartment with an influential and well-respected leftist leader, Luis Miquilena, who recalled steering Mr. Chavez’s rage toward the virtues of democracy.

“Eventually, he came to see that he could succeed through democratic processes,” Miquilena later said. “Chavez embraced democracy out of practical considerations, not theoretical ones. He came around to the idea of participating in elections for a simple reason: He believed that he could win.”

Presidential years

Once in office, Mr. Chavez proved to be idiosyncratic and unpredictable. A natural showman, he sold his new government to the masses through his frequent speeches and the Sunday talk show in which he served as both host and guest, “Alo, Presidente,” or “Hello, Mr. President.” During the show, which could last as long as seven hours, Mr. Chavez would recount his childhood, scold his ministers, sing folk songs and announce major policy decisions.

He began neighborhood “missions” that offered literacy training in poor areas, posted doctors in crowded slums and opened state-operated markets offering subsidized food. The government claimed that under Mr. Chavez, poverty in Venezuela was reduced to 30 percent of the population from more than half when he took office.

( PHOTOS: Venezuelans react to death of Hugo Chavez )

The president also advanced on what he called 21st-century socialism, which included the nationalization of hundreds of companies, the seizure of large land holdings, price controls and currency regulations. In speeches blaming capitalism for society’s ills, Mr. Chavez said his policies had made Venezuela a more prosperous country, independent of U.S. meddling and influence.

But throughout his presidency, Venezuela’s economy was plagued by blackouts, food shortages and a lack of investment, as government interventions, from price controls to the seizures of land and companies, squelched private enterprise.

Though his government was blessed by historically high oil prices, with a barrel hitting $150 in 2008, the economy in Venezuela expanded by about 3 percent a year through his presidency, while much of Latin America boomed.

Analysts who closely tracked Venezuela said that in his long presidency, Mr. Chavez had failed to bring sustainable growth and make long-lasting improvements to modernize his country.

“Chavez deserves credit for putting his finger on the real legitimate grievances that many Venezuelans felt,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue. “Where he failed was in constructing alternatives that really produced results.”

Shifter also said that although Mr. Chavez promised a clean break from the political machinations of the past, his government was marked by old-fashioned patronage and authoritarianism.

Though Venezuela held frequent elections, the government freely used its influence and economic might to sway the vote.

“I think he proved to be a despot in the end,” Shifter said. “He wasn’t a dictator. There was a fig leaf of democracy. But I think he was a despot who really wanted to control everything. He was intent on concentrating power in his own hands and was unwilling to create a system that distributed power and constrained his powers.”

Mr. Chavez’s years in office were also marked by tumult. A series of measures giving the state more control over the economy led to mounting protests in 2002 that culminated with Mr. Chavez’s ouster on April 11 after about 20 people were killed in the midst of a march near the presidential palace.

The Bush White House publicly welcomed his removal, saying that Mr. Chavez’s heavy-handed governing style had led to his own undoing. But Latin American leaders called it a coup and demanded the president’s return. An interim government headed by a mild-mannered businessman, Pedro Carmona, and a group of high-ranking military officers began to dissolve after it closed the National Assembly and supreme court.

Mr. Chavez returned to power 48 hours after being forced to leave the presidential palace, put back in place by a loyal military unit and thousands of poor barrio dwellers who had flooded the city demanding his return.

Mr. Chavez would further strengthen his position against the opposition in December 2002 when an oil strike designed to dislodge him failed. Mr. Chavez fired more than 20,000 workers at the state oil company and brought the behemoth under his watch. A 2005 boycott of legislative elections by Mr. Chavez’s opponents made the National Assembly completely pro-Chavez.

Crackdown on opposition

Fully in control by late in the decade, Mr. Chavez became increasingly aggressive against his detractors. Opposition leaders were forced to flee the country, some were arrested after openly criticizing the president, and the government yanked the broadcast license of a television network, RCTV, that had been sharply critical of his governing style. The state also created a vast propaganda apparatus, made up of a half-dozen television stations, newspapers and community radio outlets, which offered endless praise of government initiatives.

The deteriorating situation in Venezuela led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an independent branch of the Organization of American States, to issue a blistering 300-page report in 2010 saying that Mr. Chavez’s government constrained free expression, the rights of citizens to protest and the ability of opposition politicians to function. It also outlined how the president held tremendous influence over the judiciary, with judges whose decisions the government didn’t like being fired.

Known for his personal attention to many of the details of governing, the president began to call for unusual policies that left some of his supporters scratching their heads. He moved Venezuela’s clocks back half an hour, citing the positive “metabolic effect” on the population. He accused Colombian traitors of having murdered Bolivar in 1830 and ordered a national commission made up of some of his ministers to open an investigation.

( PHOTOS: Venezuelans react to death of Hugo Chavez )

In a speech in 2011, he even wondered aloud whether the absence of life on the planet Mars was because of capitalism. “I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars,” Mr. Chavez said. “But maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived, and finished off the planet.”

Mr. Chavez’s marriages to Nancy Colmenares and Marisabel Rodriguez ended in divorce. Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Rosa Virginia, Maria Gabriela and Hugo Rafael; and a daughter from his second marriage.

In the early part of his government, Mr. Chavez had met on an airplane with the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The two spoke for hours, and the conversation left a telling impression on the author.

“I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men,” Garcia Marquez later wrote in a profile of Mr. Chavez. “One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot.”

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